Resilient Raymond girls bound for regionals and state

Since returning to the bench as Raymond’s girls basketball coach, Jason Koski has emphasized the value of resiliency.

That’s a quality his team was forced to adopt even nine months ago in dealing with a devastating off-season injury. By continuing to demonstrate the same resiliency throughout the season, the senior-laden Seagulls have ended a 12-year state drought.

The Gulls (21-5) will face Pacific 2B League rival Ilwaco (21-4) in a regional contest scheduled for noon Saturday at Chehalis. Due to their high ranking (Raymond is fourth; Ilwaco fifth) in the state’s new RPI Index, both teams have already qualified for the state 2B tournament next week at the Spokane Arena.

Saturday’s winner will advance to the state quarterfinals and is guaranteed at least two state contests. The loser is also assured of a state berth, but must play in the single-elimination opening round.

Although Raymond has boasted a succession of fine girls basketball teams since the program’s inception, this will be the Gulls’ first state appearance since 2005.

“I thought we were capable of making it to state, but we never quite made it,” said forward Winter Newman, one of four senior starters.

“It’s something we’ve hoped for since third grade,” added point guard Cydney Flemetis.

Following a regional appearance with an underclass-oriented team last year, hopes were high that this would be the year the drought would end. Those hopes, however, took a serious blow when junior Karlee Freeman — the team’s leading scorer and an exceptional all-around athlete — suffered a torn ACL and torn meniscus in her knee in the team’s first summer-league game last June.

Despite early optimism that Freeman might return by late January, she was not medically cleared for athletics until last week — too late to gain postseason eligibility. She will resume her high school career in track, where she is the reigning state 2B champion in the girls discus and 100-meter hurdles.

“I first thought we weren’t going to come back from that,” Newman said of the injury.

“I was hoping (the injury) wasn’t that bad,” Flemetis agreed.

The Gulls wound up reinventing themselves as a more balanced offensive club.

Senior guard Aubree Gardner is the team’s leading scorer with a 13.7 point-per-game average, but classmates Newman, Flemetis and post Mikayla Collins also regularly score in double figures. Makenna Williams, the lone junior starter, isn’t normally as prolific a scorer, but is valuable in other areas of the game.

“I knew we needed to step up scoring-wise,” Gardner noted.

“Collectively, we had to be one,” Koski said. “We don’t have Karlee any more. We’re a sum of the parts.”

The girls also had to adapt to a new coach — albeit a familiar face.

Following the resignation of Jon Schray last spring, a delegation of team members asked Koski to apply for the head coaching opening. A Raymond alum who had guided the Gull girls to their last state appearance, Koski had been out of high school coaching since 2011, although he had remained with the district as a teacher and, at one time, athletic director.

He said the team quickly bought into his coaching philosophy, including his traditional emphasis on rebounding and defense.

“In the summertime, there were a lot of new roles they had to assume,” Koski said. “They were awesome being receptive to new ideas.”

Although giving away size to many of their opponents (Collins is the tallest starter at 5-foot-10), the Gulls regularly own a rebounding advantage.

Gardner, however, doesn’t hesitate when asked to identify the team’s greatest area of improvement.

“Defense,” she asserted. “We were not good on defense at all the last three years.”

Facing Hoquiam in Raymond’s holiday tournament in late December, the Gulls hit only one of their first 14 field-goal attempts — and still prevailed, 56-18.

Raymond made an early statement with a 50-46 road victory over an Elma team bound for the Class 1A regionals.

Most team members, however, rate the second Ilwaco game as the season’s highlight to date. Blown out at home by the tall and talented Fisherman, 54-29, the Gulls fell behind early at Ilwaco before rallying for a 51-43 triumph.

“Once we got tied (in the rematch), it gave us more energy,” Flemetis recalled. “I felt their crowd kind of helped (with their enthusiasm).”

The Gulls didn’t suffer a letdown even following that emotional victory. They wound up registering a 16-game winning streak that ended at district.

“I thought we took every game as the same level of competition,” Collins observed.

Witnessing it all was Freeman, who remained with the Raymond volleyball and basketball programs as a student manager.

“It definitely was one of the hardest things I’ve done,” Freeman said of her non-playing role. “I’m proud of them and I’m super-proud of Mr. Koski to help them improve.”

In a bizarre twist mandated by the RPI rankings, the Gulls will face Ilwaco for the fourth time this season at regionals.

The Fishermen won the third meeting, 59-35, in an essentially meaningless district consolation-round game.

Koski, who said his team “will have to be tough and protect the ball” in the regional match-up, largely discounts the district result.

“Physically, we were very, very tired,” said the Raymond coach. “Our five (starters) play 90 percent of our minutes and that was our ninth game in 18 days. We were going to compete on the floor, but we were also going to protect ourselves in what we showed.”

Perhaps due to the fatigue, the Gulls only won half of their six district games — although they rallied in the second half to beat Toutle Lake in a winner-to-regionals, loser-out contest.

Publicly, at least, Koski doesn’t seem overly concerned with his team’s form.

“With the resiliency they’ve demonstrated throughout the season, I think we’ll be fine,” he concluded.